The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, January 16, 2000

Bhopal Express: Director as crusader
By Ervell E. Menezes
"THE timing is right, bit growth, bit ambition, no, not being tired of making ad films. I have the skill, the craft, the film-making capabilities and it’s a good time for alternate cinema," is how dark, rugged ad film-maker Mahesh Mathai talks about his foray into feature films. The locale is the Sterling cinema lobby, the time nearing high noon just before the first public screening of Bhopal Express, the film which tells the story of the world’s worst industrial disaster 15 years ago.

A tale well-told

Mahesh Mathai: "Every cent I make on the film will go towards the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy." No, Mathai isn’t worried that the crowd is sparse, "they’ll come for the late-night screening," he says confidently. There are two screenings per day of the Bhopal gas tragedy which has become for Mathai a sort of mission. "No one who goes to Bhopal can be unaffected by the intensity of the tragedy, it just hits you," says 40-year-old Mathai who aims to "put every cent into the Union Carbide disaster cause."

  Was the weightage of the subject meant to ease your entry into a new genre, you ask Mathai and he spiritedly denies the allegation. "In fact the converse is true. It makes it more difficult," he goes on because the subject is known to all. Mathai then explains how the two other projects did not materialise. The first was a Indo-British love story set in the 1930s and the other was Mass of the Lion for which they (producer Deepak Nayar and he) did not get the book rights, it was too expensive.

Two collegians come to him for his autograph, Mathai obliges, telling the second modestly "my signature is not worth anything," but this does not mean he has no self-belief. "Don’t miss the beginning," hurry, "he tells the youths. He may parry off a question that he’s the highest paid ad filmmaker with an "I don’t know" but his ad films (‘Give me red’, among others) are the envy of his rivals and he makes no bones about his familiarity with the medium.

Ask him about the lazy pace of the film before the gas leak happens and he has an explanation. "I tried to catch the ordinary, simple life in midown India, that was intentional, the hero is Joe Anybody, if I had major heroes or big happenings it would take away from the simplicity of life in Bhopal,"says the debutant feature filmmaker who compares filmmaking to writing, "if you write an article or a novel it is the same, you are still writing, "he explains.

"The basics, the nuts and bolts are the same, whether the film is three seconds or one hour long, but the approach is different, "In an ad film you have to grab the attention of the audience, in a feature film you already have a captive audience, "he differentiates between the two eruditely.

There is another interruption, one of his crew comes up with a query. Excusing himself, he attends to it, and then gets back. What about the cameras he used? It’s just one most of the time, says he . Sometimes two for the action scenes. No, he didn’t take recourse to stunts. It was not necessary.

Why did some people die and others survive, you ask him and Mathai gets graphic about it. "MIC is a heavy gas and it kills at a certain level, even the trees were destroyed at that level. Then there is the wind factor and that it could be neutralised by water. Nothing happened to the lake area and later people used soaked kerchiefs, "he says and then explains how the killer gas was at times invisible, at others partially visible and at still others totally visible. "We based our story on authentic case histories, "he asserts.

The idea of the heroine taking refuge in a phone booth is a clever one but the "child gift" was too melodramatic, I tell him and he agrees. "There was a case of a child sucking at the breast of a dead mother, but I guess we should have put it somewhere in the middle of the film, "he seems to feel. "We had many endings to choose from, in one of them the heroine was to die, but we thought we should not abandon all hope.

About his directing the film as well as doing the cinematography, he at first refuses to believe that one of the two will suffer. "I don’t think so, I’ve been doing it for a long time, "he says. Tell him cinematography is an embellishment to filmmaking and he points out it can also be used as a story-telling technique. Later he saw it another way. "Even if something suffers, it is okay, you win some, you lose some, "he points out and this shows Mathai’s willingness to enter a dialogue and not stay rigid. But the fact that he was a director first and then a cinematographer surely makes doing these two tasks easier.

Mathai also agrees that the film could have been reduced from 105 minutes to 85 in the Luis Bunuelian formula. "That’s what I’ve done for the international version, "he says probably conceding that one can’t drastically reduce a Hindi film from 150 minutes to 85.

What about the aftermath of the film? "Is this a sort of crusade? "Of course, in New York there are moves already for taking action against Union Carbide, something about the working of US companies abroad. Every cent I make on the film will go towards the victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, "he reiterates also with conviction. And that seems to be the best reason for the film to succeed. That and the fact that the culprits were allowed to get away with blue murder."Top


A tale well-told

FIFTEEN years after the world’s worst industrial disaster, a film has finally been made on it. Ad filmmaker Mahesh Mathai has made ‘Bhopal Express,’’ as his debut feature film and it has certainly served to revive the issue and raise questions over how the culprits (Union Carbide) have managed to get off very lightly. It has also helped to focus on the magnitude of the Bhopal gas tragedy.

Kay Kay and Naseeruddin Shah in Bhopal ExpressMathai’s story is centred on the life of a young couple and their involvement in the gas tragedy. Varma (Kay Kay) is an assistant supervisor at the Union Carbide factory that produces pesticides. A simpleton to the core, he loves his wife Tara (Nethra Raghuraman) and is good friends with Bashir (Naseeruddin Shah), a maverick who has left the company because their terms are not quite agreeable to him. It is on the night of the disaster that Bashir and Varma are having a late-night out as Tara is away on a holiday.

Based on some case histories, scriptwriters Piyush and Parsoon Pandey have put together a rather convincing story of how the tragedy has affected the common man in Bhopal and his mundane existence. The only thing that worries Varma and Pandey is that they have no issue and like any simpleton Varma buys a powder (from a roadside vendor) which is supposed to provide them with the answer. But in a comic twist it does not get to the right person.

The few light touches are provided by Bashir. Naseeruddin Shah, in his inimitable way, delivers the goods. But the establishing shots tend to meander and the first 20 minutes drag. May be two sub-plots would have helped. But once the action starts, the depiction of that disastrous dawn in Bhopal, action, suspense and shock work simultaneously and it is a numbing feeling one is left with as one sees the trail of bodies that litter the streets of Bhopal.

The first shot of Varma trying to halt the Bhopal Express from entering the city is spectacular and the night-out provides some dramatic relief as Bashir ogles at the singer (Zeenat Aman). It is in a state of inebriation that Varma and Bashir come face to face with that terrible disaster. Folks dying like rats, coughing, suffocating and then collapsing. The ‘’flies that drop dead’’ is a clever indication of the shape of things to come. The crowd scenes are well shot and the panic is palpable. So is the sorrow that enters the soul as the victims are put in mass graves, an anonymity all pointing to the culprits as the camera captures the discussions that take place at the headquarters of the multinational company.

To those who know two languages (Hindi and English) the voice-over is a bit confusing and one tends to miss the dialogue. Cutting from the scene of the disaster to the Union Carbide management talks, Mathai gathers momentum. Cut again to the scenes of anguish and you have a rounded picture of what happened on that doomed day 15 years ago that has almost been swept under the carpet by the guilty and the corrupt.

Naseeruddin Shah is convincing and tends to carry the first half of the film on his shoulders and Kay Kay provides good support but it is Netra Raghuraman who is somewhat weak in the role of the heroine. Zeenat Aman fans will be happy to see her after a long absence and she seems none the worse for the long gap. The final, twist of the heroine in a phone booth is clever but the ‘’baby gift’’ too melodramatic. But it is a job well done and the best fallout of Bhopal Express is the issues that it will revive and the lucidity with which it projects that terrible, unforgettable disaster that virtually wiped out a part of that sleeping city. — E.E.M.